AT AGE 5, Neil Odrey Fletcher was supporting his family by playing the ukulele and singing ballads in bars, saloons and whorehouses in Kansas City and St. Joseph, Missouri. At age 79, “Fletch” has found fame as the inventor of “Fletcher’s Original State Fair Corny Dogs,” currently celebrating their 40th birthday. And, like Neil Fletcher himself, these corny dogs have seen a lot of life, and are still just as good -if not better -as they were four decades ago.
The Fletcher’s Corny Dog is a Texas State Fair tradition on a stick. The all-meat frank has been specially developed by City Packing Company with a touch of spice to give it some bite. It’s then dipped in a special batter (which took nine years to perfect) and deep fried in vegetable shortening to a golden brown. Morrison Milling of Denton puts the dry ingredients together for the special batter, and Diamond Match Company supplies the sticks.
Fletcher estimates that they have sold around 14 million corny dogs during their 40 years on the midway, which is their sole outlet. “If you lined them up on end they would go to Waco and back,” he calculates.
Neil and his brother Carl, now 88, created the recipe and the technique in 1942 after many hours in Neil’s wife’s kitchen. Texas State Fair officials had offered them the opportunity to rent a booth on the midway. As they tried to decide what their product would be, they remembered a man on Oak Lawn who baked hot dogs in a cornmeal batter in the shape of an ear of corn. They were tasty, but the baking took 25 minutes. Fletcher credits Carl with the idea of putting the whole thing on a stick and deep-frying it.
“It was no bed of roses getting started,” Fletcher says. “People were a little skeptical, so we cut up the sausages, dipped the pieces in batter and made tidbits using toothpicks. We got out early and cooked up a punch bowl full of these. After trying a sample, most people bought,” he says.
Today, the customer can get a Fletcher’s Corny Dog within three minutes of turning in his order. Of course, he has to get to the head of the usually long line before he can order.
The dogs-never called wieners-were selling for 15￠ each in 1942 at the one stand on the midway. That year the Fletcher brothers grossed $8,000 for the 17 days of the nation’s biggest state fair. This year corny dogs are $1 each at five stands; the Fletcher family hopes to gross a half million dollars in the same time span. The corny dogs are a family affair these days. The three sons-Neil Jr. (Skip), William Carl and Henry John – practically grew up on the midway and all are now involved in the dog-eat-dog business.
The son of a half-breed Cherokee and a Methodist circuit rider, Fletcher has made the world and mankind his university. The youngest of eight children, he lost both of his parents early in life. He left school after the fourth grade, but he acquired a lot of self schooling in the 12 years he and Carl played vaudeville throughout the Eastern United States. He met his wife Minerva, who died in 1980, when they were both members of the Mad Cap Players.
Next was the establishment of radio station KOCA in Kilgore in the mid-Thirties. After a year in Kilgore, Fletcher moved to Dallas to work as a manager for the Interstate Movie Theatre chain. He kept his foot in the stage door, though. During the 1936 Texas Centennial, Neil and Carl played the State Fair in The Drunkard. He professes that it was type-casting.
Fletcher has never been far from the warm glow of a footlight. He is represented by the Peggy Taylor Talent Agency and has done numerous radio and television commercials in recent years. He’s made several movies, but readily admits that they weren’t box-office blockbusters. He played a bank teller in Bonnie and Clyde-thai was the really big one. The others? Well, he says, sometimes they turn up on the late, late show.
Concerning his business ability, Fletcher admits, “I’ve been a hustler all my life. I’ve always done well.”
At fair time the entire family – children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – led by patriarch Neil, assembles at Fair Park to push their product, not because they have to, but because they believe they have the best corny dog in the world. And it appears that a lot of people agree. So many people have said that they wish they didn’t have to wait from one state fair to the next for a Fletcher’s Corny Dog that the family is currently investigating a large-scale expansion. This year has given the Fletchers a chance to test the market. One of the first ventures outside of Fair Park was the 1982 Byron Nelson Golf Classic. Fletcher says it went well. (Lee Trevino had a corny dog.) He also says they expect to expand into two or three area shopping malls.
Yes, he believes he is a success “in an off-handed way. Happiness and health are success,” he says. “I had a good marriage – nearly 40 years -and three good boys who never got into any serious trouble. I’ve made a bunch and I’ve spent a bunch.”